From awareness to action: Sudbury, mining and occupational disease in a time of change

Kramer DM, Holness DL, Haynes E, McMillan K, Berriault C, Kalenge S, Lightfoot N. From awareness to action: Sudbury, mining and occupational disease in a time of change. Work 2017:58(2);149-162.


BACKGROUND: Miners work in highly hazardous environments, but surprisingly, there are more fatalities from occupational diseases, including cancers, than from fatalities from injuries. Over the last few decades, the mining environment has become safer with fewer injuries and less exposure to the toxins that lead to occupational disease. There have been improvements in working conditions, and a reduction in the number of workers exposed, together with an overall improvement in the health of miners.

OBJECTIVES: This study attempted to gain a deeper understanding of the impetus for change to reduce occupational exposures or toxins at the industry level. It focuses on one mining community in Sudbury, Ontario, with a high cancer rate, and its reduction in occupational exposures. It explored the level of awareness of occupational exposures from the perspective of industry and worker representatives in some of the deepest mines in the world. Although awareness may be necessary, it is often not a sufficient impetus for change, and it is this gap between awareness and change that this study explored. It examined the awareness of occupational disease as an impetus to reducing toxic exposures in the mining sector, and explores other forces of change at the industrial and global levels that have led to an impact on occupational exposures in mining.

METHODS: From 2014 and 2016, 60 interviews were conducted with individuals who were part of, or witness to the changes in mining in Sudbury. From these, 12 labour and 10 industry interviews and four focus groups were chosen for further analysis to gain a deeper understanding of industry and labour’s views on the changes in mining and the impact on miners’ health from occupational exposures. The results from this subsection of the data is the focus for this paper.

RESULTS: The themes that emerged told a story about Sudbury. There is awareness of occupational exposures, but this awareness is dwarfed in comparison to the attention that is given to the tragic fatal injuries from injuries and accidents. The mines are now owned by foreign multinationals with a change from an engaged, albeit paternalistic sense of responsibility for the health of the miners, to a less responsive or sympathetic workplace culture. Modernization has led to the elimination, substitution, or reduction of some of the worst toxins, and hence present-day miners are less exposed to hazards that lead to occupational disease than they were in the past. However, modernization and the drop in the price of nickel has also led to a precipitous reduction in the number of unionized miners, a decline in union power, a decline in the monitoring of present-day exposures, and an increase in non-unionized contract workers. The impact has been that miners have lost their solidarity and power to investigate, monitor or object to present-day exposures.

CONCLUSIONS: Although an increase in the awareness of occupational hazards has made a contribution to the reduction in occupational exposures, the improvement in health of miners may be considered more as a “collateral benefit” of the changes in the mining sector. Multiple forces at the industrial and global level have differentially led to an improvement in the working and living environment. However, with the loss of union power, the miners have lost their major advocate for miner health.